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Gertrude Stein: The Making of Americans

This novel was long out of print and it is easy to see why. Written in the simple style found in her other works such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, it tells the story of three generations of an American families. Many American writers, even though they use a big backdrop, focus on a small select group of characters. Stein, however, loves to populate her works with people. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a wide variety of painters, writers, sculptors and so pop in and out. It is the same in this work as we learn about the various generations and the people they came into contact with. Indeed, we feel she wants to tell more. Sometime then there will be a history of all women and all men, of all the men and all the women, of every one of them, of the mixtures in them of the bottom nature and other natures in them, of themselves inside them, there will be then a history of all of them, of all their being and how it comes out from them from their beginning to their ending.

However, I find the simple style very annoying. It is as though it is an adult speaking condescendingly to a young child. Like many other twentieth century writers, she is very much concerned with language. To be using a new word in my writing is to me a very difficult thing. Every word I am ever using in writing has for me very existing being. Using a word I have not yet been using in my writing is to me very difficult and a peculiar feeling. Sometimes I am using a new one, sometimes I feel new meanings in an old one, sometimes I like one I am very fond of that one one that has many meanings many ways of being used to make different meanings to every one. And so on. Indeed, these authorial asides can, in themselves be very distracting as they go on for paragraphs in this simplistic style.

Where her writing finds its strength is in the portraits of ordinary women in ordinary situations. She paints often complex pictures of the various women in the saga – not just the well-to-do but the seamstresses and servants, as well as all the family members. The men are there, too, but they are often marginal or aloof, standing there like statues while the women move around them, getting things done and moving the action forward. And that is another theme in twentieth century literature – the rise of women as both thinking and acting beings.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Contact Editions, Paris